Let's get one thing straight: Jonathan Hickman's The Nightly News, is a major work of contemporary graphic fiction. But it also embraces the techniques of propaganda. Which raises the question: Can a work of propaganda validly attack the propaganda disseminated by others? Perhaps the answer is simple: Yes--you have to fight fire with fire.
Hickman's graphic novel has been called a "polemic" by some, but it's more like a call to arms. It's also an exceedingly self-aware piece of fiction that mocks its own pretensions while embracing its cause passionately. It's a bundle of contradictions, wrapped in a comic book package which, like all works of literature, carries on a dialogue with the past while looking forward to the future.
Most comic book narratives rely heavily on the past. Whether they're superhero melodrama, revisionist westerns, or zombie ninja assassins, comics rely on the tropes of past stories to frame their own narrative. Each story either comments upon its predecessors by continuing the tradition (more of the same, every issue--Daredevil's love interest is in jeopardy, will he save her in time?), or openly rejecting what came before (Batman is not, contrary to the implications of a thousand other stories, a father figure to Robin--he's a sadist who makes Robin eat rodents in the bowels of a cave). The Nightly News is no different. What makes it stand out is the way in which it chooses to react to its precursors, and the types of ancestors it selects. It's not a superhero narrative or any of the more traditional comic book genres. It's a Social Protest book, and it's damn proud of it.
Protest fiction doesn't age well, as the revived-from-the-dead Upton Sinclair can attest (read Chris Bachelder's U.S.! immediately), unless it stands as a significant literary work above and beyond the aspect of contemporary society it rails against. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man comes to mind as an exemplar of that. Originally interpreted as a work of protest, it is now most often read as an American Ulysses (at least in my house)--a proto-postmodern bildungsroman that embraces the techniques of the Western canon while smashing their ideological foundations with the beauty of a Jazz-drenched hammer. The comparisons between Invisible Man and The Nightly News are numerous, but I'm not sure that Hickman's work will have the same lasting impact.
The other thing about protest fiction, though, is that while it doesn't tend to have much lasting resonance as literature, it can sometimes change the world. Uncle Tom's Cabin probably did. And so did The Jungle, and I'm sure Hickman would much rather see that kind of impact anyway. (He's pissed as heck, and he just won't take it.)
Getting back to the question of literary merit--How does The Nighly News engage in a dialogue with the past, and what does it seem to say? (Other than the obvious: "hey past, you suck! I'm gonna shoot you and blow up your stuff.")
Let's start with the Invisible Man connections, since I already brought it up, and it seems like a fruitful place to start. While Hickman's Brother John doesn't go through the same progression as Ellison's unnamed narrator, some of the steps are similar. Both are brainwashed by the society in which they were raised, then conditioned by a cult to behave in radical ways. Both are asked to convert others to their cause, and both ultimately gain a true awareness of the hypocrisy of their "brotherhood." Structurally, both works rely on the motif of blindness, visually demonstrated by Hickman on the comic book page in the form of black, featureless eyes (not all characters lack pupils and irises, but most of them do--they just have black shadow where their eyes should be). The final image of Hickman's work displays a close-up of the ringleader, the "Voice" himself, half of his face engulfed in shadow, the other eye peering out at us--a literal embodiment of the phrase, "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Both Invisible Man and The Nightly News exist in a state somewhere between absurdity and nihilism, and although Ellison's narrator is ready to re-engage with the world now that he has gained his new perspective, Hickman's characters are bastards through and through. Their revolution isn't over yet, and it never will be.
Hickman has mentioned that his high-concept pitch for the book was "Network meets Reservoir Dogs," but it's probably closer to "Bamboozled meets Targets." I can see why he didn't say that in the pitch, though. He did want people to actually buy it. But Spike Lee's underappreciated satire of the American media and racial identity is closer in tone to what Hickman's going for in The Nightly News. Both works seep with indignation, and rightfully so, as they demonstrate, each in their own way (Lee with racist artifacts and film clips, Hickman with charts and graphs) what's so wrong with the world. And Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, capturing the fear of the "sniper with a gun" and the corrupt society which can drive humans to such actions, has more in common with Hickman's style and content than the genre-conscious whimsy-mixed-with-brutality of Tarantino's work.
Hickman's style, by the way, seems to overwhelm the content of his narrative, at least on first glance. The static images (and, yes, all comic book images are static, but the American superhero tradition of Dynamic Anatomy and Perspective is so pervasive in even non-superhero narratives that Hickman's frozen figures seem suspicious in their inactivity) and the use of boxy word balloons and typography show a distinct rejection of comic book traditions, as do the page layouts, which are designed around the figures and typography instead of broken into typical panel to panel sequences. Such a technique is more than just a way for Hickman to hide any deficiencies in his drawing ability--the style complements the narrative. The content deals with characters who have a rigid mindset as the media (and overbearing technology swirls around them). The art visually represents this.
The art, with its mechanical feel, captures the inhumanity of these characters, trapped in a mechanical, industrial, corrupt-beyond-belief corporate world. Nature barely exists in the world Hickman creates--a shadow of a tree here, a small hint of a decorative plant there--and even the humans seem far from organic and whole. At it's core, in dialogue with its antecedents, The Nightly News is a classic Romantic tale. A rebellious shout for truth and freedom in a world drenched with machines, in a world designed to turn us all into machines. It's the same stuff Byron and Shelley and Wordsworth wrote about 200 years ago, only now the poets have sniper rifles.
Finally, Hickman claims in the Notes section, that no character undergoes the heroic journey of the Joseph Campbell variety, as if to deny his book's dialogue with the past. He might be correct to say that no character COMPLETES the journey, but EVERYONE (in the comic and in life, including Hickman himself in the making of the book) undergoes the heroic journey. The heroic journey is the story of life, and the cycle repeats itself not just throughout the ages but throughout our years as well, as we complete one phase of our journey to begin a new one. Just to use an example from The Nightly News, Brother John indeed undertakes an archetypal heroic journey. His call to adventure is to join the revolution; his mentor is the Voice; his tests and trials are the assassinations and the recruitment of others; his helpers are the Brothers and Sisters; his elixir of life is the deprogramming he undergoes; his guided return is in the back of a limo sent by the Voice; and his final battle is him vs. the police at the end. Only the final stage of the journey is missing, since he dies during the battle, but the last stage, rebirth is what the comic is for. Brother John will complete his heroic quest when we, the readers, respond to his experiences by taking action of our own.
But what kind of action? Hickman doesn't say, yet he shows the peril of the violent approach. He shows characters, all of whom become compromised, taking action and failing to change anything. Except the Voice. He wins, really. But even when I say The Nightly News is a call to arms, I'm speaking metaphorically, right? Hickman doesn't want us to kill to make the media more honest. Yet he doesn't give us any other answers. Because The Nightly News is a work of literature--a satire which describes the world in which we live and tells us what's wrong with it. It's up to us to find a way to change it.
Then again, he's chosen to engage us in these thoughts with a work which, as ambiguous as it is at its core, employs the techniques of propaganda. Propaganda to counter the prevailing propaganda. Fighting fire with fire, as I said at the beginning of this piece. Maybe it's the only way reach the people.
But if you fight fire with fire, everything burns.
Read The Nightly News. It will make you think. And that's a good thing.